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The Dordogne: The Landscape of Early Man

Reproduction of a cave painting in the village of Les Eyries-de-Tayac
Reproduction of a cave painting in the village of Les Eyries-de-Tayac

The paintings that cover the walls of Lascaux Cave in France’s Dordogne Valley have assumed almost mythic proportions. The images open a window on the deep past – bringing to life animals that no longer exist in Europe or some cases on the face of the earth. The early artist’s polychrome depictions skillfully utilize the shapes of rock face as a form of bas relief. A message reaching out to us today from thousands of years ago. As a child, I thrilled to the story of four young boys and their dog discovering this previously unknown treasure. It gave me my youthful taste for spelunking and archeology. So this spring I went on my own journey of discovery.

Lascaux Cave is the most spectacular of the 25 decorated caves that comprise the unnamed (7)World Heritage listed Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley (1979). Of course as you may have heard the real cave, the World Heritage site, is now closed to protect the art works from further deterioration, but a very exact recreation, Lascaux II,  has been built nearby. It is not the same as the real thing, but it is still wondrous. And one benefit of the cave being a replica, it can accommodate large crowds and even allows small pets. Thousands of people make this their #1 stop in the region and the French government is now building a very large new visitor’s experience to be known as Centre International d´Art Pariétal Montignac Lascaux or Lascaux IV  just down the hill.

Poster of the paintings in the Grotto of Font-de-Gaume
Poster of the paintings in the Grotto of Font-de-Gaume

Perhaps this new center can help pull the story of the region together.  For as anyone who has visited the Dordogne quickly discovers, Lascaux is just the tip of the iceberg. Everywhere  signs point to the many caves and other “prehistoric” attractions in the region. Some like Dinoworld are pretty hokey while others like the World Heritage recognized caves of Font de Gaume   and Rouffinac provide  breathtaking displays of original art work. I feel very fortunate to have been able to walk into both sites, especially Font de Gaume where visitation is limited to only 80 ticket holders a day to protect the original artwork.

Landscape of the Vézère Valley
Landscape of the Vézère Valley


But one part of the story is not well conveyed and that is the past environment of the region. What did these peri-glacial landscapes look like when herds of bison, ibexes as well as mammoths and wooly rhinoceroses roamed the valleys and hillsides? How can visitors connect the wooded hills, rich agricultural scene, and limestone cliffs spread out before them today with the world as it appeared to these earlier people?  How has climate influenced both the natural world and that of man over time? The National Museum of Prehistory  in Les Ezies-de-Tayac provides a good overview of the early men and woman of the region by archeological defined periods and also has extensive collection of the artifacts. The building that houses the museum is itself is an architectural wonder as it is  built into limestone parapets and steep cliffs along the Vézère River. However, only one small exhibit addresses the environment of this early period although the artifacts and depictions of animals from the period provide some clues.

The new Lascaux IV claims that it will be more than just a museum, but will serve as a center of interpretation. What a great opportunity to paint the picture  on a landscape scale!